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Memoir of Bishop Seabury

By William Jones Seabury, D.D.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1908.
London: Rivingtons, 1908.

Chapter II. First Years of Ministry. 1753-1756

CHRISTMAS DAY in 1753 fell on the Tuesday which was but two days after the ordination to the Priesthood just mentioned. The newly ordained priest on the morning of that day, was sent with a note of introduction from the Chaplain of the Bishop of London to the Incumbent of one of the Churches in that city, apparently with the view of assigning to him some duty for the day. The Incumbent gave him but a surly reception, sternly demanding upon his entrance to the vestry-room, who he was, and what he wanted; in silent reply to which demands he presented his note; the comment upon which was, "Hah! Well, if the Bishop has sent you, I suppose I must take you. Give him a surplice, and show him into the desk" (to the Sexton), "and do you, Sir, find your places, and wait there till I come." A younger clergyman, of more amiable appearance, meanwhile seemed much amused at this splenetic reception. Coming back into the Vestry after the service, the Doctor turning fiercely upon the neophyte, exclaimed, "What is the reason, Sir, that you did not read the Litany?" "Because, Sir, it is not a Litany day." "And don't you know that if the Ordinary chooses to have it read on Festival days, it is your duty to read it?" "That may be, Sir, but it is the Ordinary's business to let me know that." The old man's face was black with passion, but before he had time to explode, the younger clergyman came to the rescue, saying: "Doctor, you won't get much out of this young man; you had better turn him over to me, for I see you don't want him: come, Mr. Seabury, will you go with me to--Church and preach for me!" "I never preached a sermon in my life." "Well, of all things I should like to hear a virgin preacher! " So the young men took themselves off, and after dinner the virgin sermon was preached; though concerning its subject, and the place where it was broached, tradition is silent: as it also is in respect to any further official acts of the preacher during the remainder of his stay in England.

In the year following, 1754, having received his appointment as a missionary of the Society for Propagating the Gospel, he set sail for his native land, and soon after began the regular exercise of his ministry at New Brunswick, in the Province of New Jersey. One of his relatives, writing about this time to another, observed: "Mr. Samuel Seabury has returned to America again; an excellent physician, a learned divine, an accomplished gentleman and a pious Christian;" a record which indicates the reputation which he had in the small circle within which he was then known, and which it was anticipated that his future life would verify.

Not much is known in regard to his work during the short time of his charge at New Brunswick, but the period is interesting, both on account of the evidence of his doctrinal principles afforded by his sermons, and also on account of the evidence of the extension of his influence and reputation in a somewhat wider sphere, afforded by contemporaneous events with which he was associated.

Among his manuscripts are several of the sermons which he preached at New Brunswick. "These discourses," observes my father (from whose memoranda I have derived much of the information which I have in regard to this part of the story in hand), "while they exhibit substantially the same theological opinions, and the same vigour and compression of style, which distinguish his later productions, yet differ from them as to certain minor shades which it is not easy to describe. They certainly give no ground for the imputation, commonly cast upon the Church at that period, of inculcating the morality of the Gospel to the neglect or disparagement of its distinctive doctrines. Holiness of life flowing from holiness of heart is indeed the end which is kept steadily in view; but the motives and influences by which the heart is to be renewed and the life reformed, are unreservedly referred to the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit Whom He sent from the Father; while at the same time the enthusiasm which in that age perverted the Gospel is guarded against, and its weakness and artifices are exposed with a firm and cautious touch. The discourses are written in a bold round hand with scarcely a mark of erasure or interlineation; and though the style is smooth and natural, yet to a skilful observer it will appear, I think, to be more studied and carefully finished than that of his published discourses. Indeed I have heard that at this time of life he used, after laying out the plan of his sermon, to write each paragraph with pencil and slate before he transferred it to paper. And I think it not improbable that this exceeding care in early life laid the foundation for that habit of combined precision and fluency to which his pen afterwards attained." [Ms. Mem. Dr. Samuel Seabury.]

This slate and pencil detail may perhaps provoke a smile: but it certainly goes to prove what it was intended to establish, viz., exceeding care in composition. It indicates something else, too, which is significant of the small economics made necessary by narrow incomes. I wonder how many of us realize what the temptation to a poor preacher in those days might be to extemporize, considering how ill he could afford the expense of paper for written sermons. Still extemporaneous preaching was not then the mode, either in the Church, or yet in the ordinary ministrations of the sober divines of other communions: and since the sermon, and a good deal of sermon, too, as we should think nowadays, had to be written, it behoved not to waste paper in experimental excursions. A few years ago, at the request of my venerated friend, Dean Hoffman, I gave to the library of the General Theological Seminary a specimen manuscript sermon of Bishop Seabury: and it was matter of interest to us both to observe that several pages of this sermon were written on the blank sheets of old letters received, and some of them cross written over the faces of such letters--insomuch that, according to the way in which the paper was turned, it appeared to throw light on things temporal as well as on the things eternal--the devout monitions, in one instance, being counterbalanced by advices of a certain barrel of cider forwarded by the preacher's friend, Mr. Moore of Newtown.

The reader will be willing perhaps to accept the assurance that these New Brunswick sermons, as indeed the whole manuscript collection, are well worthy of perusal, and afford opportunities for many interesting selections, without detailed evidence of the truth of the statement. Such a literary and theological repast, as this would involve, would be much too bountiful; but there are considerations of some importance in the estimate of Bishop Seabury's theological position, which make a somewhat particular reference to one of these discourses desirable, if not necessary.

This discourse is based upon the passage of I Cor. xi, 23 to 26, which it will be remembered contains St. Paul's account of the Institution of the Eucharist, being that account which is embodied in what is called the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion Office. It is marked by the author as "Sermon preached at Brunswick 21 0 P. A 1754, A. M.," and its introductory passage is here quoted entire, because it not only shows the purpose then in the view of the author, but also very well indicates the twofold object which appears in all his sermons; that, namely, of clearly stating (1) the revealed will of God, and (2) the rational nature of that will considered as a rule of human action:

"I have read the whole passage of the Institution of the holy Sacrament, not with a design to consider every particular contained in it; nor to take notice of every thing that might be made subservient to the most excellent purposes, but with an intention to collect from it the end of the Institution of the blessed Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. For by considering the end of the Institution we shall be led more perfectly to understand it, and to use it with greater advantage to ourselves. And though the positive appointment of our Savior be sufficient to command our utmost respect, and most unfeigned obedience; yet to be convinced that it is a most reasonable service, answering the most excellent designs, will not only engage our rational natures to comply with it, but will also kindle the flame of our devotion, and mightily contribute to the cheerfulness of our obedience, and entire resignation to the Divine Will."

The reason for quoting from this particular discourse I cannot better express than in my father's words, extending the reference above noted:

"The sacrificial character of the Holy Eucharist is expressed in our Prayer Book more clearly and fully than in the English Prayer Book, and made, as is well known, to conform to the view of the Liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church. . . . At present I wish merely to remark that considering that our Communion Service in those features in which it differs from the English service had been adopted in compliance with the wish of Bishop Seabury, and had been copiously explained and defended by him in a volume of sermons published after his consecration in Scotland, and considering also that a majority of English divines, particularly in the Georgian era, regarded the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, as explained by Bishop Seabury, with no favour, I was led to suspect that the Bishop had imbibed his opinions on this subject during his last visit to Scotland; a suspicion which was strengthened by a remark of Bishop White in his Memoirs. ... I once stated my suspicion to my father and asked him if it were correct. He assured me to the contrary, and remarked that he had heard his father say that the opinions expressed on this subject in the first volume of his published Discourses were substantially those which he had always entertained, only that they were in his later years more clearly defined and matured."

The remark attributed to Bishop White occurs in that part of his Memoirs wherein he gives an account of proceedings of the General Convention of 1789. Referring to the change in the consecration prayer which took place at that time, and to the conformity in this respect to the usage of the Scotch Episcopal Church, Bishop White remarks that this change " lay very near to the heart of Bishop Seabury;" and he adds, "Bishop Seabury's attachment to these changes may be learned from the following incident. On the morning of the Sunday which occurred during the session of the convention, the author wished him to consecrate the elements. This he declined. On the offer being again made at the time when the service was to begin, he still declined; and, smiling, added--' To confess the truth, I hardly consider the form to be used; as strictly amounting to a consecration.' The form was of course that used heretofore; the changes not having taken effect. These sentiments he had adopted, in his visit to the bishops from whom he had received his Episcopacy." [Bishop White's Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church, pp. 154-5. Ed. 1836.]

Knowing the sentiments on this point of the Scottish Bishops referred to, and not knowing what the sentiments of Bishop Seabury on the same point had previously been, it is perhaps natural that Bishop White should have come to the conclusion which he here expressed, but which seems hardly to be justified: since Bishop Seabury's above cited sermon of 1754 clearly indicates that "even at this early period he had pondered the teachings of Joseph Made and other great lights of the Anglican Church on the Christian Sacrifice, and weighed them in the balance with those of Tillotson and his revolutionary followers;" with whom the Scottish Bishops certainly had little sympathy. [Ms. Mem. Dr. Samuel Seabury.] The passage from the sermon referred to is as follows:

"The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was instituted to be the Christian Sacrifice; and an emblem of the Sacrifice our blessed Redeemer made, when he offered himself upon the cross a price and atonement for the sins of the whole world. Bread, the staff of life and emblem of strength, the grand support of the humane kind; and Wine, the emblem of joy and thankfulness, are chosen for the materials of this Sacrifice and of commemorating the death and passion of our Redeemer; and of expressing our gratitude to Almighty God for the wonderful work of Man's Redemption. And they mightily express the temper and design of the Christian Religion.

The Law of Moses represented all men to be under the curse of death. And accordingly the sacrifices of this law were all made by shedding of Blood, for without this there was no remission. But now Christ our Sacrifice being offered for us He hath slain the enmity and made our peace with God through the Blood of his Cross. There is therefore now wanting only strength to persevere; and thankfulness to God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost for the inestimable hopes of eternal life. Instead therefore of shedding of Blood, which under the Law was necessary to strengthen the Jews in the Faith of the future Sacrifice of the Messiah; our Savior has instituted the Christian Sacrifice of Bread and Wine to be the emblems of his grace, and of our joy and thankfulness; that we receiving the creatures of Bread and Wine according to his appointment and in remembrance of his Death and Passion, might by faith be made partakers of his most precious Body and Blood. And thus is his Flesh Meat indeed and his Blood drink indeed.

Thus the Sacrament is a continual Sacrifice to God. And our blessed Savior hath chosen these things to be the materials of this Sacrifice and Symbols of his Body and Blood, which have the greatest analogy to the Graces which we need; and which should shine brightest in the Christian life, namely perseverance in well doing, and continual increase in the divine likeness; and sincere gratitude, and unfeigned joy and thankfulness to Almighty God, and our adorable Savior for the innumerable benefits which his precious Blood shedding hath obtained for us. And by the consecrated Elements of Bread and Wine we figure unto God the Father, the Passion of his Son, that according to the tenor of his Covenant, he may be gracious and propitious to us miserable sinners."

The comparison of this language used in 1754 at the very beginning of the preacher's ministry, with that used in his sermon " Of the Holy Eucharist" included by him in the collection of discourses which he published in 1793, some three years before his death, and which he undoubtedly designed as a statement and explanation of principles underlying the American Prayer of Consecration, cannot fail to establish the fact that his sentiments upon the changes which are said to have lain so near his heart in 1789, were not of any recent adoption, but had been woven into the texture of his faith and teaching throughout his whole priesthood. [Discourses on several subjects, by Bishop Seabury, vol. I, pp. 175-7. Ed. 1793.]

Before the conclusion of the Missionary's stay at New Brunswick, an episode occurred with which he became to some extent connected; and which is of interest both on this account, and as indicating the adverse nature of certain influences which operated against the Clergy of the Church in the Colonies, particularly those of them who were the representatives there of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign parts.

The Rev. Mr. Beach who, about the time of the conformity of Mr. Seabury's father, had left the Congregational Ministry and received Orders in England, returning as a Missionary of the Society, had settled in Newtown, Connecticut; where for many years he had with great diligence laboured, both to the edification of his people, and to the increase of the respect and confidence of his brother Missionaries and of the Society. Mr. Beach, however, notwithstanding his general rectitude, seems at one time to have given some just cause of offence, by certain teaching in regard to the state of the faithful departed, which excited no little disturbance among those who were aware of it. Suffering great affliction on account of the death of his wife, his grief seems to have led him into error: for not content that she should await the time of the Resurrection, he insisted upon it that she had gone immediately into happiness and glory eternal. Nor was he disposed merely to cherish this conviction for his own personal comfort, but he undertook to instruct his people in the same notion, and even attacked all the clergy he met with on the same subject, going to the further extent of publishing a sermon designed to establish a doctrine which by this time he believed to be essential for the acceptance of all Christian believers.

The matter of Mr. Beach's defection being brought to the attention of the Rev. Mr. Wetmore, of Rye, the Bishop of London's Commissary, was by him laid before a Convocation of the Clergy who considered the case, and took such measures as were proper for the satisfaction and instruction of the people on the point involved; and by their action Mr. Beach appears to have been led to reconsider the position which he had unadvisedly taken; and he seems to have pursued his course as a Missionary thereafter without giving further grounds of exception to his teaching in this or any other respect. The Commissary appointed the Missionary of New Brunswick to preach the sermon before the Convocation on this occasion. "I thought it hard upon me," said he, "and I told him that I was the youngest Clergyman in the Province: I do not care for that," was the reply, "you are better able to do it than anyone else, and I shall insist upon your doing it." Many years after, at the conclusion of one of his Episcopal functions, an old man accosted him, saying, "I have not seen you, Bishop, since you preached at the trial of old Mr. Beach: and I remember that, as I saw you go up into the pulpit, I said to myself, "These Ministers must be very careless about their business, when they send that boy to preach for them at such a time; but in a few minutes I owned that if you had a boy's face, you had a man's head."

The fulfilment of this duty seems to have been all, or at least the chief concern of the New Brunswick Missionary with this episode: but Mr. Beach's temporary defection gave occasion to the Congregational watchers to point out to the venerable Society what they considered to be its duty in the premises; and gave them also the pleasure of overtaking in a fault one about whose loss from their ranks there had been considerable soreness of feeling, and whose course in the Ministry of the Church they were apparently not sorry to discover to be worthy of blame, so that they might safely indulge themselves in reading the Church Clergy a lecture in regard to soundness of doctrine.

It is evident from what has been related, that if their real had been the same as their professed motive, they would with a little patience have been satisfied with the care taken by the Provincial Missionaries for the preservation of the faith; and might have spared themselves the trouble of appealing to the Society for its condemnation of Mr. Beach; since the Missionaries themselves proved equal to the emergency without its special interposition.

But then the following correspondence would not have taken place, and we should have been deprived of the instruction which it appears to furnish as to the temper of the times, and the feeling in the Colonies against the Society; which in this instance, although veiled under the form of very creditable diplomatic expression, is not altogether difficult to be discerned.

The correspondence referred to consists of a letter to the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft, the Society's Secretary, from the Rev. Messrs. Mather and Wells, toward the end of 1755, and of Dr. Bearcroft's answer in the early part of 1757. The Manuscript preserved among the Bishop's papers, appears from its superscription to have been a copy made for him June 26, 1760, and gives the letters as follows:

"Stamford, Connecticut, December 24th, 1755. Rev. Sir:

As the Honorable Society of which you are a member, in the Annual Abstract of their proceedings, desire their friends in America to be so just to them, when any person appears there in the character of a Clergyman of the Church of England but by his behaviour disgraces that character; to examine, as far as may be, into his letters of Orders, his name, etc and if he appears to be one of their Missionaries, they intreat their friends in the sacred name of Christ to inform them that they may put away from them that wicked person;

And as heresy or false doctrine in a Missionary is as truly subversive of the great designs of the Gospel Ministry, as an immoral life, we presume an information on this head would be equally acceptable to your Honorable Board. In this confidence and from a sense of duty as Ministers of Christ whose business it is to guard against errors in doctrine, it was that the Reverend Association to which we belong came into the following resolve, which you will see we were ordered to transmit to you; viz. At a meeting of the Association at the Western district in Fairfield County at Canaan October 28th, 1755; The Association taking notice of a sermon that was preached and published by the Rev. Mr. Beach, Missionary of the Society for propagating the Gospel, in which are promulgated some errors subversive of the Christian faith; in the great and important doctrines of a future resurrection and General Judgment: and considering the unwearied pains Mr. Beach has taken to propagate these errors, his success in gaining proselytes among his own people, and others, and that the other Missionaries do not take such public measures as the case seems to require, to convince the people of the fatal tendency of such errors, and considering ourselves as having a special concern in the affair, as the Rev. Mr. Beach lives in our near neighborhood, and frequently preaches within our bounds, ordered that the Rev. Messrs. Moses Mather and Noah Wells, two of our members, do write a letter to the Sect, of the Society, and transmit one of Mr. Beach's sermons to him, with a copy of this resolve, that the Honorable Society may have an opportunity to take such measures, as they in their wisdom may think proper, to discountenance such dangerous principles, and prevent for the future the bad consequences of them. A True Copy--

Signed, Noah Wells, Register to the Association.

Agreeable therefore to the trust reposed in us, we now send you the above resolves, together with the sermon of Mr. Beach's referred to therein.

'Tis needless for us, we apprehend to point out to the Society the errors it contains, and the forced glosses and misrepresentations of sundry texts of Scripture adduced in support of the same. By a perusal of the piece, they themselves, will be able to judge how far the notions it contains are agreeable to the doctrines of your Church respecting the resurrection as contained in the Creeds, Homilies, and Burial Office she uses, their consistency with the writings of the Evangelists and St. Paul and the general sentiments of the Christian Church upon that important article of faith, in every age since the Apostles' time. We are sorry we were not able to present you with a fresh copy of Mr. Beach's sermon, but as the impression was speedily taken off, and by reason of the novelty of the doctrine, the book was much sought after, and soon passed through many hands we are not able to obtain one, this we trust will excuse us in sending one somewhat defaced.

That your Honorable Society may be directed to the most proper and effectual measures, to guard against heresy and error of every kind--that they may be much more extensively useful in prosecuting the truly noble designs of their original incorporation, that agreeable hereto they may be made instruments of carrying the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ to the remotest heathen nations, and spreading the joyful news of salvation to the most distant and barbarous lands is the sincere wish and earnest prayer of your very humble servants,

Moses Mather
Noah Wells

To the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft Sect. to the Hon. Society.

From the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft.

London Charter House,
Feb. 28th, 1757.

Rev. Sirs.

I write this by the express order of the Society for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign parts to thank you and your brethren for your letter in relation to the doctrine concerning the resurrection published by Mr. Beach in a sermon entitled a modest enquiry into the state of the dead, a copy of which you were pleased to transmit. The Society having maturely considered this sermon are much concerned to find that so learned and able a Missionary from them should have fallen into error in the great articles of the Resurrection of the Dead, and of a future judgment. And the requisite steps are taken to set Mr. Beach and all his followers right in this most important point--if this be not already done by his discoursing with his brother missionaries and his consequent mature thoughts on the subject. The Society are obliged to you for your sincere wish and earnest prayer that they may be useful and successful in the designs of their original incorporation; which was and is in the first place, to provide a maintenance for our orthodox clergy, for the public worship of God, in our Plantations, Colonies and Territories beyond the seas; and then to make such other provision as may be necessary, for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign parts--That God may bless all our endeavours to propagate the Gospel of His dear Son is the sincere wish and hearty prayer of your faithful and affectionate

Servant in Christ

Philip Bearcroft, Sect.

To the Rev. Mr. Obadiah (sic) Mather
& Mr. Noah Wells, New England. Superscribed

To the Revd. Mr. Obadiah Mather
& Mr. Moses (sic) Wells, probably at or near Stamford Connecticut etc."

There is much that is suggestive and interesting in this correspondence, but nothing more so, I think, than the most polite intimation of the deputation that the Society should, in accordance with "the truly noble designs of their original incorporation," occupy themselves with sending their Missionaries "to the remotest heathen Nations" "spreading the joyful news of salvation to the most distant and barbarous lands;" that is to say, keeping them as far as possible from what they called their "bounds:" whereas they very well knew, as Dr. Bearcroft with equal politeness reminds them, that the design of the original incorporation "was and is in the first place to provide a maintenance for the orthodox clergy, for the public worship of God in our Plantations, Colonies and Territories beyond the seas; and then to make such other provision as may be necessary for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign parts."

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